Thursday, August 5, 2021

Hard Realities : Kamsack to Canora

We finally had some much needed rain last night, and this morning dawned grey, overcast, smoky, and surprisingly cool.  We were very pleased with this turn of events, and decided to take advantage of the lovely temperatures by covering as many kilometers as we could.  We ended the day 59.4 km farther down the trail, which is a personal best so far.  To be honest, as I write this my legs are telling me I'm in no hurry to try to beat that personal record. 


As we headed out of Kamsack this morning we crossed the meandering Assiniboine River, which has been our companion on and off since leaving Winnipeg.  We spotted two Belted Kingfishers on the utility wires above the water, and stopped to enjoy a small family of Blue-winged Teals paddling in a small cattail pond nearby.  As we watched, two Great Blue Herons who had been fishing in the small pond took flight and disappeared across the fields with powerful beats of their graceful curved wings.


As we headed out into the countryside we identified part of what we think is different in this part of Saskatchewan relative to Manitoba.  First, the concessions seem to be much larger here.  In the parts of Manitoba we walked a 1 mile grid was typically used to divide up the land.  Crops would usually change according to this grid, and the squares would often be separated by gravel roads, dirt roads, or tracks.  Here the concessions seem to be 2-3 times that big, and this morning it often seemed like the golden grain crops extended to the horizon in all directions without variation.  Second, in Manitoba we were almost always within sight of a home or a vehicle driving the roads.  During our entire hike today we passed fewer than six homes out on the concessions, and only four trucks.  In some ways the vastness of this landscape rivals that of the Rocky Mountains.  It's hard to describe and harder to wrap our minds around.

As we walked through the fields we spotted a surprising number of Eastern Kingbirds perched on fence posts at the edges of fields.  This struck us as unusual because we are more used to seeing them in marshy areas.  We were also happy to see quite a few Barn Swallows swooping low over the fields, foraging for insects in the foggy morning.

As we approached the small community of  Veregin we passed something new - a Trans Canada Trail marker with the new logo on it!  This is the first one we've seen along the trail this year.  We take our hats off to the trail stewards in this section!

Although the day was long, we made a 3 km detour up the trail spur to visit the National Doukhobor Heritage Village, which is both a National and Provincial historic site.


Although we visited before the site opened at 10 am, we walked around the grounds, which featured a museum, administrative building, bakery with stone oven, bath house, a surprisingly elaborate Prayer House, a blacksmith and machine shop, and several barns. This community was established in 1904 by followers of Peter Veregin, and was the administrative and spiritual center of the Canadian Doukhobors in the early 20th century. 

The Doukhobors, or 'Spirit Warriors' are a Christian religious group of Russian origins.  They are pacifists, who live communally in their own villages, reject personal materialism, and have developed a tradition of oral history and memorizing hymns and sung verses. 


This group of settlers was lead by Peter Vasilevich Veregin who was born in Slavyanka, Russia (1859-1924).  He was a Russian philosopher, activist, and community leader. He established his first village at this spot, where it thrived until 1905.  When the CPR line was put in beside the community, they named their station Veregin Station, giving the town its name.  In 1905 the Doukhobors rejected the requirements of the Dominion Lands Act, which stated their communal lands must be registered under individual ownership, and they relocated to Brilliant, British Columbia.  Veregin's headquarters remained in Saskatchewan, and he spent the rest of his life travelling between the two provinces.  He was assassinated in a bomb explosion on a CPR train in 1924, and it is still unknown who the perpetrator was.


We enjoyed learning about this tiny piece of the rich cultural mosaic that makes up the population of the Canadian prairies.  Afterwards we headed back south, and rejoined the main line of the Trans Canada Trail where we'd left off. We were delighted to find that it was a hard packed, closely mowed grassy track that was a joy to walk. 

As we followed the trail west we were surrounded by fields that extended as far as we could see in all directions.  In one stretch we walked around a relatively large wetland complex.  There was a family of Blue-winged Teals paddling around, but otherwise it was relatively quiet.  The days of exhausted parents feeding large groups of demanding fledglings are done.  Instead, large mixed flocks of Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds are gathering above the golden fields, and many birds are now quieter, some keeping a low profile while they molt and fatten up in preparation for migration.




Much of the track was bordered by shrubs, and in addition to the gathering flocks of blackbirds, they were filled with a variety of Clay-coloured, Vesper, and Song Sparrows.  Overhead, throughout the day we heard many Red-tailed Hawks giving their iconic shrieks.  I used to think that movies and video games that had Red-tails shrieking in the background were pure fantasy, but our soundtrack on the trail today was provided courtesy of a stream of angry hawks.


As we walked along we passed a lot of stands of trees, which harboured the remains of stone foundations or abandoned wooden houses and barns.  Seeing these historical remnants made Sean very happy, and he went to investigate a few of them, finding painted wooden walls and beds still intact inside a few of the homes.  Outside some of these buildings were rusting pieces of farm machinery, looking as if they were still waiting to be picked up again and used.  The sense of expectation made us want to know the stories of these places.


Around noon it began to rain gently.  It began slowly, as a persistent mist that crept in and permeated everything.  Then it began to rain in earnest.  Suddenly the earth track we were on turned to thick, sticky, mud, which coated our shoes and the tires of our carts.  A few minutes later the rain stopped, leaving thick fog on the landscape.  The fields and trees disappearing into the distance looked magical, and reminded us of walking the Camino Frances in Spain.


At one point in the afternoon the challenges of prairie life again revealed themselves when the trail took us along the property line of a local farm.  Suddenly the open fields delineated by the types of crops growing and concessions which bisected them was defined by fence lines and posted signs.  Indeed it was so well posted that there was a sign on every other fence post along the vast property.  Signs of,   No Trespassing, No Hunting, No Trespassing, No Hunting and Monitored by Video Surveillance proceeded us onto the horizon.  Then just as we approached the driveway to the lone farm house they changed to:  Slow Down, Watch for Dog, Slow Down, Watch for Dog only to again be replaced by Monitored by Video SurveillanceNo Trespassing, No Hunting, No Trespassing, No Hunting.  Even then with all of the signage, the fences and the cameras and amid the pouring rain of the afternoon a man slowly drove out in his white pickup truck to watch us very closely as we trekked on the road along the length of his property.  One can only imagine what has gone on in this area to lead to such a reaction and such watchfulness.  This once again reminded us of the hard realities that many live with.

Eventually the track turned to a gravel road again.  As it continued to rain on and off, we passed the St. Dimitros Cemetery.  There was a small white chapel in the graveyard, but sadly the property was protected by a wire fence with locks, and the church itself had a digital keypad lock.  Just down the path we came to a small community of abandoned wooden homes and barns, which were likely once part of a thriving community here.  Although I've tried to look up information on the history of St. Dimitros, to learn what happened and how a community with a Greek sounding name came to be here, I could find nothing online.  I've found this to be the case with many historical sites on the prairies, leading me to think there are some fantastic opportunities for history students and researchers to chronical and share the stories of these places before they vanish from memory.




As we continued down the wet country lane and then crossed a larger road we met up with an older man riding a bicycle.  He was originally heading perpendicular to us, but after noticing us soon turned to follow us, and then proceeded to stop his bike in front of us to chat.  His conversation was fast, mumbled, and full of curses, and his thoughts were clearly circling around his bike, which he repeated he had been riding for thirty years, which was broken, which he needed money to fix, and which someone had messed him over with but he'd gotten them back.  He wanted to know what we had in our backpacks.  Then he wanted to know what we had in our trollies.  He asked us for water, and opened the garbage bag he was holding in one hand to reveal a tangle of ropes, litter, plastic bottles and empty needles.  We filled an empty Coke bottle which he handed us with water while he watched. Afterward no matter how fast or slow we trekked he kept pace shifting between walking his bike or riding closely beside us.  Through it all his conversation always returned to wondering what we had on us, asking did we have a friend near by or anyone in a car near by, or did we have food and money in our backpacks.  Did we have extra money for his bike?  Did we have a room in the next town?  

We couldn't tell if he was suffering from a mental disability, had taken drugs, or was simply lonely but as he followed us down road after road for the next 7 km, repeatedly asking us where we were staying and where our car was, and about what money we might have on us we became increasingly uncomfortable.  Perhaps unjustly it was with great relief that the heavens opened and the pouring rain prompted him to loose interest in us and cycle off towards the highway.  This gentleman was our final reminder for the day of the challenges which illness, addiction, homelessness and poverty foster in individuals in communities across the nation. 


During our final kilometers into town rained pretty hard, and we made the final push into Canora in record time.  Since all our gear was soaked and we were still kind unnerved by the events of the day we decided to check into a motel at the edge of town.  As we walked down the highway we passed a long row of billboards letting us know what businesses and amenities were available in town.  We also spotted signs for eight churches of different denominations.  We'd seen this kind of welcome before coming into Kamsack and a few other towns in Saskatchewan, marking another change as we cross the prairies.

We hung our soaking wet clothes and gear up, hoping they would dry by the morning, and went in search of food.  We decided to leave exploring Canora until the morning. 


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